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Dispelling popular myths about video surveillance in workplaces, facilities and mass gathering areas

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The presence of video surveillance cameras has become a normal and often expected part of everyday Canadian life from the workplace to almost every imaginable type of facility and mass gathering area. In the aftermath of crimes or other unsavoury incidents in stores, hospitals, concert halls, office reception areas, school campuses or other facilities, one of the very first questions asked is whether video images have been captured of the offender(s).

The rise of video surveillance systems in Canada has taken place in a vacuum – in the absence of meaningful guidelines or standards – and often without a clear understanding of the purpose, evolving capabilities and limitations of video camera technology. This month’s column will attempt to dispel five popular myths about the role and use of video surveillance.

Next month’s column will move beyond these popular misconceptions in proposing a practical framework from which to make informed judgements about the installation or expansion of camera systems in workplaces, businesses and other fixed facilities.

Myth one – “Video surveillance cameras prevent crime”

Despite the millions of video surveillance cameras installed around the globe and the billions of dollars spent each year on surveillance technology, there is no evidence that installing video cameras leads to meaningful or lasting reductions in crime. In an article last year in Great Britain’s The Guardian newspaper entitled, Why Has CCTV Failed to Deter Criminals, the author somewhat bluntly suggested that,

“CCTV’s greatest value appears to be to those who make money out of selling CCTV”.

There are a number of reasons why video surveillance may not prevent crime, including:

  • The offender’s assumption that the video surveillance system does not generate good quality images
  • The absence of real-time video system monitoring and/or the criminal’s assumption of this fact
  • The ease with which the criminal can circumvent the system (i.e., avoid areas covered by cameras, pull down a baseball cap, put up the hood of a hooded sweater)

Myth two – “Putting up dummy cameras may scare away some criminals”

There are two reasons why deploying dummy cameras is a bad idea. The first is the previously mentioned factors that suggest that even real video cameras do not necessarily “deter” criminals. Perhaps more important than this is the fact that dummy cameras can create a false sense of security for workers and the public. Trying to explain why the dummy camera not only failed to prevent the crime, but failed to provide any evidence after the crime is not a position an organizations wants to be in.

Myth three – “The best reaction to crime and security incidents is to put up cameras!”

In the wake of a violent crime, break-in(s) or other disruptive security incident(s), putting up video cameras is seen as a convenient and effective way for organizations to demonstrate a commitment to preventing further occurrences. Recent examples of this phenomenon have taken place in universities, shopping centres, residential communities, and in a paradoxical case, cameras were installed by a county council to monitor vandalism to………other cameras.

While installing cameras may be a quick and visible way to show decisive action after an incident, there are compelling reasons to question the wisdom of this all-too-common, knee-jerk response, including:

  • Most often, an objective risk assessment is not conducted to understand whether cameras are an appropriate solution to combat the crime(s)/incident(s) at hand
  • In many (perhaps most) cases, cameras would not have prevented the original offence(s)
  • It is often the case that additional offences occur after new cameras are installed

Myth four – “Cameras are an effective standalone crime prevention measure”

The act of installing video surveillance cameras is often seen as a crime prevention panacea. In this scenario, there is an assumption that the simple placement of visible cameras in key locations where crimes may occur is tantamount to creating a “crime-free zone” which fearful criminals will be reluctant to penetrate. Unfortunately, this assumption is seriously flawed.

Security measures fall into one of four security program categories:

  1. Technologies (e.g., video surveillance, electronic access control)
  2. People (e.g., training and education of employees)
  3. Procedures (e.g., guidelines to be followed to prevent or respond to a crime)
  4. Hardware (e.g., doors, locks, barriers, fences, signs, lights)

Clearly, video cameras fall into only one of the four categories that make up an overall security program. In the absence of: (i) comprehensive security procedures; (ii) security awareness and incident response training; and (iii) a full range of security hardware measures, the installation of cameras will only deliver partial security protection.

Effective security and crime prevention programs are built on a fundamental concept known as “defence-in-depth”. The defence-in-depth philosophy teaches us that to effectively reduce the risk of crime, the measures that make up a security program need to address four key objectives:

  1. Prevention – security measures that seek to ensure crime is not realized by deterring potential criminals
  2. Control – security measures that seek to impede or delay the criminal and interfere with the offence to minimize resulting damage
  3. Detection – security measures that seek to detect or uncover criminal activity before a crime is fully realized
  4. Intervention – security measures that, having detected criminal activity, seek to signal the security breach to a response agent, which in turn seeks to intervene in the crime or bring the offender to justice

Of the four security program objectives above, we have already addressed the issue of prevention – i.e., there is a lack of clear evidence that surveillance cameras prevent crime in any lasting way. By definition, cameras do not control crime – i.e., they do not physically impede the offender or delay the offence. In rare cases, cameras can support crime detection – i.e., where the video system is monitored in real-time by someone who is trained and able to identify and follow up on a crime in progress. By far the greatest benefit of security cameras is their ability to aid in criminal intervention, particularly after the fact as an aide to Police investigation and criminal prosecution.

As can be seen from the preceding analysis, video surveillance systems are a single security measure and should form but one part of a broader crime prevention program. In the absence of complimentary and overlapping security measures (i.e., hardware, procedures, people), the appropriateness and efficacy of video surveillance will be diminished.

Myth five: “The company installing the camera system knows what I need”

Another common mistake made by organizations is assuming that the video camera system installer (known in the industry as the “security integrator”) knows best when it comes to establishing whether video cameras are required. Rather than performing an objective risk assessment to determine the need for cameras, many organizations either assume that cameras are necessary or turn to a security integrator for validation of this need. With the greatest of respect to the many excellent security integrators out there, I don’t know of a single one who would advise a client NOT to install cameras.

Beyond the initial decision to implement a video surveillance solution, security integrators are also commonly asked for guidance in identifying the purpose, positioning and performance requirements of surveillance cameras and systems. Security integrators are very good at installing and connecting camera systems to meet specific performance requirements, but most are not so well-versed in assessing security risks, establishing the location-specific objectives of video surveillance, and identifying legal privacy standards.

In an excellent article entitled, How to Hire the Right Security Integrator, Claire Meyer reinforces that organizations should “find a security integrator who will work with you in the long-term, not just plug in the cameras and walk away”. The truth is that most security integrators want to provide the best possible solution. However, in many cases the organization commissioning the camera system is unclear on its objectives or unable/unwilling to provide the funding necessary to optimize the installation and ongoing maintenance of the camera system.

While decisions about video camera systems may seem straightforward to a casual observer this is far from the practical and legal reality. Before reaching out to a security integrator for assistance, the organization should, at a minimum, ask itself some key questions about video surveillance, including:

  • Is video surveillance a legal and appropriate measure to be utilized in managing the specific crime or security risk(s) facing the organization?
  • Have other (possibly less expensive or less intrusive) measures been tried or considered separately from, or in parallel with, camera deployment?
  • What are the specific objectives of video surveillance?
  • Where and how does the video surveillance system need to be deployed to meet the objectives?
  • Should all camera images be recorded and if so, for how long should images be retained?
  • Should the camera system be monitored in real-time and if so, how, where, and by whom will this be accomplished?
  • How should the cameras and monitoring/recording equipment be protected against security and privacy breaches (i.e., logically and physically)?
  • What type of policy framework should be developed to ensure that video surveillance systems comply with legal privacy and responsible business standards?

Some final thoughts

Canadians have grown accustomed to the presence of video surveillance cameras at the places where they work, shop, eat, travel and relax. The exponential increase in camera surveillance systems across Canada has been accompanied by an alarming lack of readily-accessible standards to assist those making decisions on camera system deployment.

In the absence of meaningful guidelines and standards, a number of popular misconceptions have been allowed to form about video surveillance. This month’s column has attempted to identify and dispel at least five of these common myths.

Despite regular claims to the contrary, video cameras are not a proven crime deterrent. Before installing video surveillance, organizations would be well served to establish objectively whether cameras are an appropriate solution to combat the specific crime risks faced. If deemed to be appropriate, cameras should form one part of a wider security program based on defence-in-depth principles.

David Hyde
David Hyde and Associates

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David Hyde

Security and business risk consultant at David Hyde and Associates
David Hyde, M.Sc, CPC is a security and business risk consultant, author and educator with 26 years of broad-based leadership experience. He is principal consultant with David Hyde and Associates and in this role is a trusted advisor to a number of Canada’s top corporations on operational and reputational due diligence matters. Read more
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One thought on “Dispelling popular myths about video surveillance in workplaces, facilities and mass gathering areas
  • David Hyde says:

    An interesting case in point came to light which clearly illustrates some of the themes highlighted in the column. The video clip at the URL below was released today by Toronto Police in relation to an armed robbery of a cellular telephone store last month. Here’s the URL:

    The first point of note is the steps taken by the robbers to mask their identities from the store surveillance system. Hats, hoodies, baseball caps and sunglasses are often used by criminals to avoid identification via camera surveillance. The other point is the quality of video output from the exterior camera, which is so low that the license plate number of a car parked directly outside the store is a blur and cannot be read.

    This example underscores the importance of specifying and installing camera systems to meet specific performance objectives whilst avoiding common errors such as low quality and poor camera placement.